Put resources in open hands: Give to local NGOs fighting Ebola

The National Peace Corps Association has started an Ebola relief fund that will be awarding monetary grants to local, community based NGOs in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia working with directly related Ebola issues. This may be working on outbreak containment with patients and their families, providing food to quarantined areas, caring for orphans and the elderly, or a number of other issues. Our first round of funding will be awarded November 1st. I am a member of the steering committee; we are staffed by RPCVs from Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia and coordinated by an international public health expert. Our goal is to help the people we love in the best way we know how — by empowering local communities.

Through its longstanding relationship with Women’s Campaign Internation, some of the recent donations from the Friends of Liberia have been used to provide relief supplies to quarantined families in Nimba County in north-central Liberia.

Through its longstanding relationship with Women’s Campaign Internation, some of the recent donations from the Friends of Liberia have been used to provide relief supplies to quarantined families in Nimba County in north-central Liberia.

Community based efforts have been the most effective in this outbreak as they already have trust and respect from the local population. Wouldn’t you trust your neighbor over a stranger? Peace Corps is all about living local, integrating, and working within the cultural context. This fund will continue that by giving locally. 100% of donations will go towards Ebola relief efforts in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

If you are looking for a way to get involved with this outbreak, please click here to make a donation to the NPCA Ebola Relief fund and encourage those you know to donate as well.

How YOU can help fight the Ebola outbreak

In the past two months, this blog has gone from 23 followers to 360+ and many of you have reached out to me asking what you can do to help. The same question has been on my mind ever since I was removed from Guinea.

In a recent Huffington Post piece David Nabarro, a senior U.N. coordinator for the outbreak, said “[it] is advancing ahead of us, it’s accelerating ahead, and we in our control efforts, collectively, are falling behind. Every country in the world needs to be thinking ‘what can we do to help?’ Because if we don’t get on top of this outbreak as a global community then this could effect all of us in unexpected ways.”

I’ve got two suggestions for my readers.

1.  Give money.

Financially, this outbreak has only just in the past few weeks begun to receive the international aid attention it deserves. Still, there’s not enough. Personal protective equipment for health workers, gloves, sanitizing solutions, hydration fluids, pain medications, food — they’re all lacking.

Ella Watson-Stryker, working with the Doctors Without Borders emergency response team in Sierra Leone, has said they are “fighting a forest fire with spray bottles.” She laments,

We’re sorry that we don’t have a medicine proven safe and effective to kill the Ebola virus. We’re sorry that we don’t have a vaccine. We’re sorry that we’ve failed to stop the epidemic. We know we should be doing more but we don’t have the resources, we don’t have the capacity, we don’t have the staff. Some days it feels like it doesn’t matter how hard we work because there aren’t enough of us.

The call for help is there and we have the means to answer. If you are interested in helping financially, the answer isn’t going out to the store and buying $50 of gloves and mailing them to West Africa. Cash donations will have the biggest impact on the relief efforts. I believe that the best organization to donate to is Doctors Without Borders. As an agency, they cannot earmark your donation for the Ebola outbreak — they are an aid organization that responds to the most pressing global medical needs. But right now, that need is in West Africa, and these are the people on the ground.

These are the people teaming up with local health care workers and doctors. These are the people providing support to patients. These are the people risking their lives to save others. These are the heroes.


Donate to them. Encourage your friends to donate to them. Encourage your family members to donate to them. Share this link on your Facebook page.

2. Educate yourself, and then educate others.

Money isn’t the only answer to fighting this outbreak. We’re also fighting an outbreak of misinformation. Educate yourself and when you hear a family member or a friend speaking falsely about the Ebola outbreak, educate them. Remind people that Africa is a vast, diverse, rich continent — that there are greater than one billion humans there beyond the few thousand talked about daily in the US news circuit.

Talking points about Ebola virus and illness transmission 

  • Infection is transmitted through direct contact with blood or secretions of an infected person, or exposure to objects (like needles) contaminated with infected secretions
  • The outbreak has been spreading wildly in West Africa because it has never before occurred in this area and communal care of ill family members is very common
  • The disease also spreads quickly through health care settings, with the nurses and doctors treating the patients often getting infected themselves. Masks, gowns, gloves, and proper sanitation of all nurses, doctors, and health care workers is necessary at all times to avoid contracting the illness. Wearing these outfits in the heat of West Africa is very extreme and can only be tolerated for 1 or 2 hours at a time
  • Symptoms of the illness may appear anywhere from 2 to 21 days after exposure
  • The current outbreak has a survival rate of 47%, contrary to previous outbreaks with a mortality rate of up to 90%

What is the risk to me / my family / my country?

  • Low to none!!!
  • Risk to travelers in West Africa is very low in absence of direct contact with the blood or secretions of an infected person
  • While new studies are pointing out that the risk of Ebola cases popping up in U.S., Europe, and other African countries is increasing with time it is extremely important to note that analysts state that “what we could expect, if there is an importation, would be very small clusters of cases, between one and three.” 
  • There will not be an outbreak of this scale in America because we have high quality health care, health infrastructure, and place trust in our health and government officials

Side effects of the Ebola outbreak

  • USAID reports that the current outbreak is negatively affecting food security and access to livelihoods and basic health care services — people cannot find food, cannot work in their fields, and cannot find doctors for other basic health care needs
  • U.N. World Food Program has declared a Level 3 emergency  — the highest for this organization — in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, and is providing food assistance to patients, quarantined communities, and other vulnerable populations
  • UNICEF reports rising food prices in Liberia

Why is this outbreak so serious?

  • First Ebola outbreak to reach West Africa so health workers were not used to the extreme cautionary procedures
  • First Ebola outbreak to leave rural villages and arrive in major, urban capitols with populations in the millions — high risk for spreading to others due to high density population
  • Lack of education about how the virus spreads
  • Misinformation — many people deny that the virus even exists because there are several other illnesses common this time of year with similar symptoms (malaria, dengue fever, lassa fever)
  • Fear — West Africans are very social and communal and to have to be quarantined or quarantine a loved one when they are ill goes against every cultural and religious tradition. Fear of this quarantine has led many people to lie to health officials about their own illness or to hide family members, escape from hospitals, or steal back dead bodies of loved-ones to complete burial rites

Remember the context of these countries. Read the full NPR interview with Lewis Brown, the Minister of Information, Cultural Affairs, and Tourism, from which I’ve taken the following quote (bold added for emphasis):

Our country, Liberia, has come a long way in its development, in its progress. Over the last 10 years [since the civil war ended], we’ve covered a lot of ground — but we would be the first to admit that we’re not where we thought we could be. So our hope is that, as this virus has rightly so exposed many of the weaknesses of our country, that it [does not end up] hurting the country and undermining its stability.


I say that because often if things don’t get put into context, then we lose the full picture. And, as you will find, it’s so easy. And we will continue to encourage, at home and abroad, discordant voices to be heard, in our mind not because they’re right, but because they have a right to say it.


And in exercising that right, especially at this point, we’re hoping that we can focus not just on saving lives but giving people a way of sustaining their livelihood. That is the challenge we face today. And for us, there’s nothing bigger than this. Because we know we will win this fight [against Ebola], we must win this fight or else all of us get consumed by it. We must — there’s no choice here.


Additional Sources of Information:
CDC Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever Fact sheet 
USAID Ebola Fact Sheet
Doctors Without Borders Ebola Response Page
WHO Ebola Page

On Being Evacuated: It’s every volunteer’s worst nightmare.

Today volunteers in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia received the information that we will be sent home for an undetermined amount of time as a cautionary move against the rising risk of Ebola.

Electron micrograph image of the Ebola virus.

Electron micrograph image of the Ebola virus.

Friends and family back home are overjoyed at the news, but volunteers in-country are stumbling around in a state of shock. Projects that have taken months of sweet-talking the authorities, grueling grant applications, planning every step of the way have to be left now – postponed indefinitely. Bags must be packed. Close of Service dates for volunteers preparing to leave will be moved up. Pre-service training has been stopped dead in its tracks for the recently arrived group of volunteers. Somehow, we must all find the words to explain to our friends and host-families the harsh truth that we are leaving and don’t know when we will be back.

The Ebola outbreak began in the Forest Region of Guinea in February 2014 and was quite a shock. The word “ebola” conjured up images of bleeding, vomiting, dying and astronaut-style HAZMAT suits.


But, looking around my village I saw that nothing had changed. Ebola was here now, but it seemed too far away to be dangerous to me and my village. It was more likely, and still is, that people in Guinea would die of malaria or malnutrition than a deadly viral hemorrhagic fever. I remember calling my mother to dispel her fears. She’s a reasonable woman but even she imagined that I was living through some sort of ‘zombie apocalypse’ with infected patients roaming the streets looking to pass on their contagion.

“No, Mom. I’m OK. Everything will be fine as long as I don’t touch dead bodies and stay away from severely ill people, which I tend to do anyways.”

Sunset and thunderstorm skies in Koba are beautiful

Sunset and thunderstorm skies in Koba are beautiful

Over the course of the past five months, Peace Corps Medical Officers (PCMO’s) have taught us how the disease is spread, instructed us to avoid ill people and funerals, and placed a ban on working in local health centers. Once Ebola became a daily used word in my Peace Corps vocabulary, the initial shock wore off and I spent more time dealing with worrying friends and family members back home than worrying about my own health and safety. I’ve been carefully following the outbreak, receiving updates from PCMO’s on new confirmed and suspected cases, and have felt safe the entire time. Other more anxious volunteers posed the question lurking in the back of all of our minds – “Could we be sent home for this?” I always assumed that the answer was a resounding NO. Day to day life at my site has hardly been affected, save for new radio spots educating the public on how to avoid contracting the virus and the occasional news report that more cases have been confirmed. I’ve taken every opportunity to educate people in my village about the seriousness of the illness and how to minimize risk of contracting it, but as time has gone on so has life and the outbreak seemed more and more distant to us in Koba.


But it has lurked, continued, spread, and grown. As of today, 1,201 cases have been confirmed in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia and 672 of those patients have died. That’s a 56% mortality rate. Still, living through this Ebola outbreak has proven to be less scary than it must be for all those back home in the States, being bombarded these types of headlines daily:

“The Curse of Ebola” 
“Ebola Outbreak: Could it spread to the US?”
“Death Toll Rises In ‘Totally Out Of Control’ Ebola Outbreak” 


Unfortunately, this outbreak has been severely mismanaged on two ends. Primarily, the Guinean government is not equipped to handle it but more tragically the Western world has chosen to feed the fire with sensationalized media instead of what we really need here in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia – medical assistance, man-power, education, and funding. In a recent New York Times piece Ken Isaacs, the Vice President of Programs and Government Relations for international relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, penned a plea to the world to wake up to what’s happening in West Africa:

“Doctors Without Borders is the only non-governmental organization working against Ebola in Sierra Leone and Guinea. The organization I work for, Samaritan’s Purse, has collaborated with the group in Liberia, but this outbreak is too much for us to take on by ourselves. We desperately need others to join this fight…. I call on the international community and the donor governments of the world, particularly in Europe and the United States, to step in and recognize the very limited capacities of the ministries of health in West Africa and to help them contain this disease. I urge all organizations with capacity in medical, public health, social mobilization and water/sanitation to help in this fight. A disaster has descended upon West Africa, and it deserves the full attention of the international community. The world’s deadliest and most contagious disease is on a collision course with millions in major population centers. The situation is urgent. There is no time to wait.


I’m devastated to be leaving. Truthfully, it hasn’t yet hit me. How does one face their family — because that is what my community has become — and tell them that I must leave while they must stay? It is another example of the astounding privilege I have as an American, and perhaps the heaviest blow of them all. I am not any better than these people; I have simply been more blessed in the game of chance we call life. I get to leave while they must stay. My country has decided the risk is worth removing me — but who will be their hero? Who will help Guinea? Sierra Leone? Liberia?

To those outside the affected nations, Ebola is a headline; a scary word, a panicked nightmare that some African may hop on a plane and land on your doorstep with his deadly illness. But these are real people affected and they are scared. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is not growing due to a super-mutation of the virus — it is spreading due to misinformation, fear, and hard-to-change cultural traditions. Doctors working to contain the virus have met serious distrust and even conflict in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, which has been negatively reported in Western media as superstitious and religiously based. But as Susan Rered of Salon writes, 

Distrust of Western medicine may have less to do with superstition than with history: forced sterilizations in Peru; the intentional infection of Guatemalans with gonorrhea and syphilis; marketing campaigns urging mothers in countries lacking safe water supplies to replace breastfeeding with infant formula so that women could work in western-owned factories; the sale in Africa of pharmaceuticals that passed their expiration date for sale in the West; the harvesting of organs in India for transplants to wealthy foreigners.

Yet many continue to blame the disease on Africans who have rejected foreign aid. Rered notes that people have been quick to judge West African citizens and government, thinking that this type of outbreak would not be possible in America. But there are deep-rooted causes contributing to the current situation:

Attention to sorcery rather than the inequalities of globalization obscures the fact that the biggest leaps in life expectancy in the U.S. and Europe came about because of massive government-funded public health measures — sewage systems and clean water supplies – not because we gave up our religious beliefs.

The misinformation, distrust, and lack of education is unfortunate and causing this virus to spread, but it is not the fault of the Guinean people. The rich history of Guinea is pained by colonization, civil discord, military raids, failed communism and struggling democracy and has led to a general distrust of both the Guinean government and the Western world in general. The education system, 70% unemployment rate, and social structure sets people up for failure; there is nothing inherently unintelligent or incapable about Guineans. During my time here I have been constantly amazed at the rich linguistic intelligence I see on a daily basis — people are often fluent in 5 or 6 languages, while Americans struggle through their required 4 years of Spanish or French. Creative solutions and a tenacious energy run freely through villages and cities. Yet I fear that many back home reading about this outbreak imagine an uneducated country with religious zealots refusing to be treated. I imagine that these people cluck their tongues, sigh, and silently think that this would never happen in America. And they go back to their day without a second thought.

UN workers teaching the public about Ebola symptoms and how the virus is spread.

UN workers teaching the public about Ebola symptoms and how the virus is spread.

As always The Onion, a satire news organization, has hit the nail on it’s odd little head with a recent piece entitled “Experts: Ebola Vaccine At Least 50 White People Away” with a fictional doctor stating that “waiting more than 50 white people for an effective preventative measure was something the world would simply not allow.” As I am now forced to leave, I worry about the world allowing this outbreak to continue and leaving Guinea behind. Leaving West Africa behind.

Now is a time for action. We must step up, we must help. We must contain this outbreak. More doctors are needed. More equipment is needed. More education is needed. More government support and action is needed. We can start by contributing to Doctor’s Without Borders (click to donate) and by remembering that real people are involved, who are very uneducated and scared, and remembering that we also need to educate ourselves before we jump to immediate panicked conclusions and assume that the fault lies at the hands of those suffering from this illness.

I leave you all with this quote from an oustanding article from The Independent I recommend you all read:

Perhaps our obsession with the horrors of Ebola says more about us than anything else. That it kills so rarely, and, for many of us, so far away makes it more nightmarish to contemplate. Absolutely horrific, sure, and yet, could you really argue that stage IV metastatic cancer is any less gruesome? Fearing Ebola is morbid escapism, a way to flirt with the inevitability of our own demise, to ponder the frailty of our own ineffectual meat sacks. Ebola is our macabre fantasy not because it’s likely, but because it isn’t. To many in the West, Ebola matters not because of what it does and how it kills; it matters because of what it represents.

My prayers are with all Guineans, Sierra Leonians, and Liberians. May God help these people and grant a quick end to this devastating outbreak. Please keep them in your prayers and thoughts.

My heart is with the village of Koba and will remain there until I can safely return.

Updates to follow as they come.